Drug use is one of the main things to be aware of when anyone is looking for a coven to join. If you find a coven where getting stoned or high is the norm, or is the norm for most of the participants outside the coven, that’s a major indicator to find another one. Indeed, the major reason that many of the traditional Craft covens have ‘gone underground/covert’ in current times is that many people seem to think that using drugs is a normal part of modern day Paganism rather than the exception.
Certainly in the past drugs were used in Pagan rituals both directly as in flying ointments or potions, and indirectly such as incenses used when the practitioner was invoking entities or scrying. However they were used as tools for a purpose rather than an end in themselves. Herbs such as hemp were used to slightly defocus the mind of the practitioner to enable them to put aside their disbelief in what they were doing and make the subconscious mind more accessible.
In earlier times drugs caused more problems for Pagans, particularly Witches, than they solved. Because of the Christian King James Bibles’ translation of the term pharmakoi which means “herbalist” into “witch” which meant “malevolent spell caster” unofficial herbalists outside of the accepted hierarchy of doctors, apothecaries, and other sanctioned healers, were already feared because of their ability to kill as well as cure. It was quite common in that era to find an unscrupulous and unofficial herbal practitioner, who may or may not have practiced magick, for help in ‘opening the door to the afterlife’ to speed up inheritance or promotion in some form.
King James had an interest in witchcraft and even wrote a book on the subject when he was King of Scotland and was considered something of an expert. However during his travels in Europe, particularly to Denmark in 1589 to meet his future wife, he encountered the ‘Demonic Pact’ theory of witchcraft which claimed that Witches obtained their powers because of a pact with the Christian Devil. On his way home from his visit storms nearly sank the ship on several occasions and this was blamed on Scottish Witches. According to accounts over a hundred Witches were captured, charged with this crime, and executed by burning at the stake. This was the customary punishment for treason, which attempting to kill the King would fall under. As many of the Witches executed were probably lay herbalists this is how the translation of herbalist to Witch came about in the King James Bible.
Drugs and witchcraft were also connected in Scotland because of the widespread use of the cereal crop Rye as a staple food. Rye is related to Wheat and Barley and is well suited for damp peaty soil common in Scotland, unfortunately this damp environment is also ideal for the growth of fungus, particularly Ergot which is parasitic to Ryegrass. If infected Rye is harvested and used for food it can cause effects similar to LSD, including hallucinations, convulsions, paranoia, and bits of the person rotting and dropping off (Dry Gangrene). All of which could be attributed to maleficent Witchcraft and may have been the reason that Witch hunts were rare in areas that did not grow Rye as part of the staple diet.
Further evidence for this is that in the lowlands area of Scotland where Rye was a common crop Witchcraft trials were more common than in the Highlands were Oats were the staple food. When an outbreak of Ergot poisoning occurred in August 1951 in Pont St Espirit, France, the bakery was believed to be “possessed by the Devil” and the local Bishop exorcised it.
With food being subject to stringent safety checks these days modern Pagans are more at risk of cursing themselves through drug abuse than ending up as the subject of a communal witch hunt. Some roots of this can be traced back to the Carlos Castaneda books about a Yaqui shaman “Don Juan” who supposedly trained Castaneda using various herbal drugs to help in perceiving the Otherworld. The first of these books was published in 1968 and they still continue to be popular today.
In the 1970’s when I lived in Mexico I was friendly with a Mexican Brujo and I asked him about the Don Juan books. He said not only were they fraudulent, but actively dangerous to anyone trying to copy the deeds mentioned in them, particularly the way Datura and Lophophora Williamsii were used. I did see what happened to people who were silly enough to try copying the books; his warning was horribly accurate with the less fortunate ending up with permanent psychospirtual problems and the lucky ones ending up dead.
In the 1980’s and 90’s I spent time investigating Pagan groups on the South coast of the UK. Almost all of them were more likely to cast a circle with a joint as an Athame and, when questioned about their drug use, usually said “It’s a herb not a drug”(?!) or “It’s shamanic, people have been doing it for thousands of years”. They wondered why their magick wasn’t getting results, and why any attempts at rituals turned into ‘bad trips’. I didn’t have any success at getting them to change their ways, but did learn a lot about the nature of addiction and the long term damage it can do to the mind.
The most noticeable was just how suggestible these people were even when they weren’t actively ‘on’ anything. One time I remember it being the height of summer and managing to convince someone it was so cold they started shivering and getting goose bumps! Combined with the loss of memory, both long and short term, caused by drug use you could convince these people that almost anything had happened to them in the past. With one group I knew even in ordinary conversation I could evoke false memories even bizarre ones such as seeing fairies, UFOs, and even meeting the Goddess Bastet in the local park!
It was a dramatic demonstration of how regular drug use “unloose the girders of the mind” To quote the Occultist Dion Fortune. It was put more mundanely by a friend who commented to me “How do I tell him he’s like a car breaking down – his mind wanders, it’s like some of his plugs are gone” about a mutual friend who became a habitual ‘Skunk’ cannabis user.
Nowadays instead of risky drugs psychological techniques such as self hypnosis, and pathworking are coming to the fore as the most effective way of expanding the mind. Even Aldous Huxley, a man not shy of taking all sorts of substances in his search for expanded consciousness and chronicling them in his book “The Doors of Perception” realised this. After experiencing hypnosis with the psychologist Milton Erickson Huxley commented that while drug experiences showed glimpses of expanded consciousness, hypnosis showed how to achieve it and stay there longer.
In the last few years I have heard of one or two covens in my area that operate a ‘drug free’ policy, even outside the covenstead. I don’t know what they consider a drug though as alcohol, tea and coffee are considered as such by many spiritual practitioners. All a seeker after a good group to join can do is go and check out all they ones they know of or find out about. On rare occasions they may even be contacted by one of the traditional Craft covens that work in secret outside the mainstream, but are always alert to a new member with positive integrity. Whatever groups you find trust your observations and your instincts to select the one right for you.